Advice for Creating Great Relationships Between Managers and Team Members

Blog Barista: Alex Morris | September 25, 2019 | Project Management | Brew time: 8 min

As a professional software developer for almost 20 years, I have had the privilege of working on many great projects with talented teams. I spent half of those years as a developer and I spent the other half in a team management capacity as an architect and leader.

My transition into a management role has seen a fair share of successes and failures. As I started moving into team leadership and management positions, several things strongly impacted my idea of what’s important for growth as a leader. And there is a lot of growth to be done between roles.

My management style has been influenced by many things like the concept of emotional intelligence, Scrum Master training, management training classes, and multiple books like The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Crucial Conversations, and Creativity, Inc. It’s really hard to convey all of the influences, but they have all been extremely important to my career.

After I had a solid technical foundation, I was surprised that technical proficiency wasn’t the most important thing to focus on during my journey from coder to manager.

Advice for the Team Member

I place a high value on communication with my team. The manager and team-member relationship can be a great, healthy dynamic; but it only works with proper and consistent communication between both parties. When communication is lacking, that is when the potential for conflicts arise. Here’s what I have learned about communication that impacted my relationships from my early days at KL&A.

Ask the Questions

To this day, I remember a specific moment that changed my perspective. When I first started working at KL&A, a conversation began among us about COTS. In my attempt to sound like I knew what I was talking about, I asked, “who’s COTS, are they a competitor of ours?” This might seem like a perfectly good question to ask, but my intent was to sound like I knew what I was talking about by attempting to answer the question while asking it. In reality, I didn’t know who or what “COTS” was in relation to KL&A.

With a good laugh, and a bruised ego, I soon realized that I should have just asked what COTS was instead of attempting to sound smart. It turned out that COTS was just an acronym for commercial off-the-shelf software products. Asking the direct question, “what’s COTS?” would have been a far more superior approach.  

Be a question asker. Ask simple and direct questions. Don’t worry about how you look or sound to your peers. Then, listen and consider the answers you received. It can be difficult to overcome our own fears of sounding dumb, inexperienced, etc. But, asking questions can yield better results with your team. Trust me, your managers and peers will not judge you for asking about something you do not know. It is better to ask questions (even if it seems stupid to you), then to not ask due to fear. A good team is comprised of a team of learners, not just a team of the learned.

Avoid the Blindside

You have already heard it a thousand times, communication is key. The manager and team member relationships are just that, relationships. It takes honesty, openness and effort to make it work well. When I began my career, I wish I knew what I knew now. It would have helped me navigate the workspace and create better relationships. 

For example, you shouldn’t let your manager be blindsided by something you knew about, whether it is good or bad. As a rule, if your manager may hear something negative from someone else, then it’s your responsibility to tell them ahead of time. By doing so, you’re being a diligent and communicative team member and putting them in a position where they can speak intelligently about the situation. The same goes for all the wonderful, good things.

Make the Extra Effort

Be transparent. This encompasses everything: your work, bandwidth, how you’re feeling, etc. It’s important to tell your manager about all the other things you’ve been doing for work as well. Never assume they know everything. 

Are you putting in extra hours? Have you been pulled into activities that are not normally part of your job, like coordinating an internal conference, helping write an RFP, assisting bootstrap an application? 

Being transparent will allow yourself and those around you to have a clear understanding of everything going on. Don’t let your manager be caught off guard regarding you, or your work. Your manager is your primary advocate in the company, they are the person that will help you the most. You can equip them to be that for you when you are honest.

Advice for the Manager

Managers are the advocates for their team members. Managers get to know their team members very well and help them move forward in their careers. They’re basically information radiators for and about our team. Here’s what I’ve learned when establishing great and respectful relationships with team members, which ranks high among my priorities as a manager.

Praise and Correction

As a manager, you have the wonderful privilege of praising the strengths and accomplishments of team members. You also have the heavy responsibility for having the difficult conversations that nobody wants to have. One approach is ensuring that your praise and corrections are as positive as possible. Teams are comprised of people that have made a lot of mistakes. Everyone is human (at least I hope they are) and mistakes are inevitable. But, teams do not have to be defined by their mistakes.

In fact, many mistakes are turned into teaching opportunities. All of the teaching opportunities, the feedback and how you speak to your team members will have a domino effect. Creating an understanding, safe and positive environment will help your team succeed.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a critical area for managers to understand. But what exactly is emotional intelligence? It is our capacity to be aware of and express our emotions. It helps us navigate interpersonal relationships empathetically and diplomatically. As a manager, you must be willing to draw out the emotions behind the reactions from your team members, and sometimes from outside stakeholders. This hasn’t always come naturally to me, but, like all management skills, it is learnable.

For example, I made a mistake when I was still working at athenahealth. I had an IM conversation with one of my best performing team members while being stressed and frustrated. My emotions got the best of me. Unfortunately, I was very short and curt with him. During our next one-on-one, he brought it to my attention. He told me that my communication was usually gracious and highly appreciated, but that one conversation in particular was different. He felt like I was upset with him. But, thanks to his courage to share how he felt during that exchange, we were able to discuss the situation and move forward.

This helped me identify how easily stress and frustration comes through in any conversation. Ultimately, it strengthened our relationship and helped me grow as a manager. Emotional intelligence will be the key to any relationship, especially your working professional ones.

Actually Lead Them

Like with anything, managers need to be adaptable and open to new ideas. The talent, creativity and skillset of your team members will be your best asset. Remember, your team is looking for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. So, not everything will always be how you envisioned it or want it to be.

Not only are you the advocate for your team members, but you’re also there to help them flourish. It’s important to recognize and accept anyone who may challenge your way of doing things. By openly discussing ideas and being ready to change, you give your team members opportunities. When possible, say yes to the ideas of your team members. Give them autonomy and a sounding board which will allow them to build mastery.

Whenever you can, connect the work that your team is doing to the impact it has on the company and the world. If you illuminate the purpose behind the seemingly endless cycle of ticket work it will ultimately be a recipe for motivation and achievement.

Much of this can be summed up simply: be vulnerable, as both a team member and a manager. Be the kind of person that is enjoyable and safe to be around. If you care more about others succeeding than yourself, you’ll succeed as a byproduct.

Over the years, I realized that great management stems from having great working relationships. The relational and interpersonal parts of life have repeatedly proven to be the critical factor to having a productive and highly motivated team. All of my influences, combined with everything I have learned from personal experiences and fantastic leaders who encouraged instead of critiqued, is why I manage the way I do today at KL&A. There’s a reason why you go through “storming” to get to “performing.” 

1 Comment

  1. Very insightful!

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